DEI Summit speakers focus on role of art in social justice


The presenters at U-M’s 2020 DEI Summit highlighted the intersection of art and social justice as they encouraged people to use their voices and talents as mechanisms for change. 

“Art is not entertainment,” actor Wendell Pierce, a University Musical Society Digital Residency Artist, said during the Oct. 26 event.

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“It’s a place where we reflect on who we are, what our values are, and then to go out and answer that clarion call, to act upon those values. That is the power of art.” 

The summit, titled “Arts + Social Change: Building an Anti-Racist World through the Arts,” was designed to bring the community together around a collective commitment to anti-racism while also highlighting U-M’s commitment to being welcoming, diverse and inclusive. It took place over Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Aaron Dworkin (upper right), professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship, moderated a panel discussion with speakers from the DEI Summit. Clockwise from upper left are Colleen Medicine, Johanna Kepler, Dworkin, Wendell Pierce and Courtney Cogburn.

In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel thanked everyone who has played a role in U-M’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. He said the university must continue to move forward with them.

“The difficulties and tragedies of the past few months re-emphasize the enormous challenges we must confront,” he said. “The lives of Black people, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and others, lost to unjust killings by law enforcement. The harms of the COVID-19 pandemic, manifested differentially in our communities, depending upon race, income, or ZIP code. The opportunities to live, learn, succeed and thrive — here at Michigan and beyond — squelched by generations of systemic racism.

“These are horrific reminders of how much more we need to do.”

View the full 2020 DEI Summit.

Along with Pierce and Schlissel, summit speakers included:

  • Robert Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion.
  • Provost Susan Collins.
  • Dancer and activist Johanna Kepler, a recent graduate of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
  • Colleen Medicine, director of language and culture for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
  • Courtney Cogburn, associate professor in social work at Columbia University.
  • Katrina Wade-Golden, deputy chief diversity officer and director of implementation for U-M’s DEI Strategic Plan.

Kepler, who described herself as an indigenous, Maya, Guatemala, Jewish immigrant, said that as a U-M student, she was passionate about connecting her love of dance with her advocacy work around racial justice and immigration reform.

When some students of color were subject to racist attacks after the last U.S. presidential election, she choreographed and directed a performance piece called “Through Our Eyes” that highlighted the experiences of students of color.

“I wanted to wake up the campus and have the racist attacks not be seen as isolated incidences, but a window into what students of color faced every day,” she said. “Whether it be physical attacks, microaggressions, or the fact that unless we took specified classes, we did not learn from or learn about people that looked like us in our textbooks.”

Speaker Johanna Kepler offered a video of a dance segment that highlighted the experiences of students of color.

Kepler said with more empathy building through art, she believes “we can continue to make positive, tangible change toward a more equitable world that we want to live in.”

Medicine talked about her efforts to reclaim language, identity and culture, and also about her work with the Anishinaabe Theater Exchange. The exchange uses theater as the main vehicle of delivery to raise awareness of important issues that impact tribal communities, such as trauma, loss and violence against women.

Cogburn is the lead creator of “1000 Cut Journey,” an immersive virtual reality experience of racism. It places users in the digital shoes of a black male character named Michael Sterling, who experiences racism throughout his life.

Cogburn said the way to achieve racial justice is not through an intellectual exercise or in the consumption or production of science, but through “a visceral understanding that connects the spirit and body as much as reason.”

In her remarks, Collins gave an overview of U-M’s recently announced set of antiracism initiatives. They include the launch of a George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund; plans to hire at least 20 new faculty members with scholarly expertise around structural racism; the expansion of resources to support scholars who work in areas of anti-racism; and the creation of a task force on policing and public safety for the Ann Arbor campus.  

“These initiatives are key to making our campus a community in which each of us is valued, and where everyone thrives,” Collins said.


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